Wi-Fi is an intangible meeting requirement that can be the Fairy Godmother of your event—enabling attendees to use your app, participate in polling, and download educational materials. It can also be an evil spirit, causing complaints from guests who can’t check their email and disruption for presentations requiring an internet connection or access to audience devices.
According to Tim LaFleur, CMP, director of event technology at Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, meeting planners can find it difficult to negotiate Wi-Fi with venues because the terminology is often unfamiliar, and it can be difficult to gauge the Wi-Fi needs of your attendees.
Here, LaFleur presents the essential Wi-Fi vocabulary so that planners can understand the terms when negotiating an event’s Internet connection.
This is the amount of data that can be transmitted (uploaded) or received (downloaded) per second. Think of it as a pipe with water flowing through it—every device connected to it is a “tap” that takes a bit of water from the pipe, leaving less for everyone else.
Bandwidth Utilization Report
This report from the network service provider enables planners to see how much Wi-Fi was used, where, and when. For example, one session could require all attendees to participate online. If the report finds that attendees used more bandwidth than you budgeted for, you might consider running that breakout as two smaller sessions in the future to limit the impact on Wi-Fi speeds for attendees not in that session. The report is key to determining how much Wi-Fi to contract for at subsequent events.
Wireless Access Point
A device that provides a connection to a wired network from a wireless device. WAPs can be concentrated around one area, such as a ballroom or exhibition hall, or distributed across many rooms in the venue. A bandwidth utilization report and WAP map can determine whether WAP locations worked well for an event or need to be adjusted for the next conference.
How many devices can connect to a single access point at the same time. Wi-Fi is only as fast as its slowest component.
The time (in milliseconds) it takes Internet traffic to go from a device to a server. High latency is a sign of a slow network.
A set amount of bandwidth is allocated to a venue and is shared among all attendees. If two groups are sharing the venue, one might consume more Wi-Fi than the other.
The theoretical number of wireless connections that can be supported at a specific bandwidth within a specific space.
IEEE Standard Wireless Specification
By itself, the number 802.11 can handle between 30 to 60 devices depending on usage, while that number followed by letters b, g, n, a, or c can handle several hundred devices.
Before beginning negotiations with the venue, LaFleur suggests determining exactly what the Wi-Fi needs are. How many connections are required? Many conference attendees will use at least two devices online; for example, a smartphone and laptop or iPad.
LaFleur says that planners should also think about their own terminology when marketing an event; “high-speed Wi-Fi means different things to different people," he says. It is better to offer an expected average speed (for example, 3 or 4 MBPS) rather than overpromise.
Wi-Fi Questions to Ask the Venue
Before beginning the negotiation, LaFleur suggests trying to understand each stakeholder’s perspective. Attendees want enough for their needs—but planners have to figure out what “enough” is and budget for it. Venues either see Wi-Fi as the cost of doing business or as a profit center. Even if the venue offers free Wi-Fi, planners should consider paying for an upgraded connection. LaFleur says that “free is not free if the cost is to the attendee experience.”
1. How much bandwidth in total is coming into the property? If it just barely covers your needs, ask if another group will be sharing the venue and, if so, determine whether that will still work for you.
2. What types of groups will share the space over your dates? A cooking convention will need less Wi-Fi than a movie-streaming convention.
3. How much bandwidth is split between hotel guest rooms, meeting space, and staff offices? Can you live with your share?
4. What kind of access points does the property have? 802.11b/g? Or up to c?
5. What is the range from each access point? Get a map of the APs and plan activities requiring a lot of bandwidth close to those points.
6. Are the access-point handoffs good? Or as you walk from one AP to another, will your signal drop in between? It is a bad sign if the venue hasn’t considered this and doesn’t have an answer.
7. Does each access point have its own direct connection to a network switch, or are there serial cables to each access point? If it’s the latter, a problem with one will cause a problem with all of them.
8. How fast does the IP address refresh? If someone leaves the facility or turns off Wi-Fi, how soon can another device jump onto the network in their place? LaFleur says the refresh rate can range from 30 seconds to 15 minutes.
9. What technical support does the hotel or venue offer? Is there someone in-house or will you have to wait for a contractor if there is an issue?
10. If you buy Wi-Fi for a certain number of connections instead of as a block of bandwidth, what happens when you reach the connection limit? LaFleur suggests asking for a five-percent overset and see if the venue will give you a 15-minute grace period during high-traffic times.
11. How well does the network balance the property-wide load? If one room is using a lot of Wi-Fi can the network accommodate that spike if other rooms are using less?
12. Can the venue set up ad hoc access points? For example, if you have an evening reception outside, can they move an AP to the event lawn or patio?
Using an App to Test Wi-Fi
LaFleur uses the Speedtest app to check Wi-Fi on-site visits, and it can be useful to check access points around the venue when planning activities. One example: When leaving a plenary room, people usually check e-mail, so one or more APs in the prefunction space is a good idea. But he cautions that “an app might give you a fast reading in an empty venue. The more people using it, the slower it gets.”